Sunday, 15 March 2015

Unusual Recipes

by Marie-Louise Jensen

When I talk to school groups about my Georgian books, I occasionally recount tales of Georgian food. It's guaranteed to liven up any group. There's something about food from different cultures and times that is an endless source of fascination for most of us.

So I talk about how gelatine for jelly was made by boiling pigs' trotters in a pan and red food colouring obtained from beetles (both still true, of course, we just don't do it ourselves in the home kitchen any more) and how pulled chicken was made - though bizarrely pulled meat has started coming back into fashion, so it's no longer as interesting.

But one of the most weird and unappealing dishes I've found to date is still the one I came across researching my first book Between Two Seas. The novel is set in Skagen, which is the isolated tip of Jutland, Denmark, and where in the 1880s they had rich seas and poor land. As a result, the Skagen dwellers' diet consisted almost entirely of fish, with some rye bread to bulk it up. And yes, they suffered from all kinds of digestive disorders as a result.
One way of ringing the changes was to eat the occasional fried seagull.

That's right. Fried Seagull.

The recipe is as follows (just in case anyone's hungry):
Pluck the bird, wash it and soak it in cold water with some herbs overnight. Then soak it in milk. Tear the skin off, wash it again and boil it in water and herbs until it's half done. Finally, drain it and fry it.

The bird was served stuffed with slices of raw potato. To quote the locals of the 19th century 'Det smagte dejligt' - it tasted delicious.

I've always rather doubted this, suspecting it's probably an extremely acquired taste. So I googled whether anyone else around the world eats seagull, and apparently the Maori people of Southern New Zealand do - fried muttonbird. According to the American food blogger who tried it, it's incredibly greasy and tastes like a tidepool. I thought as much. You can read the account here: http://cookrookery.com/?p=2449
I think the fact that fried seagull was eaten at all is probably a mark of how desperate the Skagen community sometimes was for food, especially in the winter when the sea froze over. It makes me very grateful for my local Sainsbury's.

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12 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

The late Terry Pratchett said in one of his novels that a lot of things considered as delicacies wouldn't have been created if people hadn't been too poor to afford other foods. And it's true. Think about oysters. Those used to be the food of the poor.

Mind you, I don't think fried seagull will ever be on the menu of any expensive restaurant. :-)

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I think both Terry P and you are right there :)

maryom said...

When I first saw you mention fried seagull, I thought, Hmm weird but it's a bird and we eat chicken,pigeon,pheasant.... and the people of St Kilda used to eat puffin I believe. Then I read the preparation and it sounds really off-putting. Still, if it's that or another meal of fish, it might seem more appealing .....

carol drinkwater said...

It does sound rather unappetising, Marie-Louise, but then many cultures serve dishes that I could never stomach. On occasion, during my travels, I have been forced to eat something I thought might make me gag, but never fried seagull. Thank heavens.
Snake, dog, one-hundred-year-old eggs, live (writhing would be a better description) scorpion on a stick - all foods, in my opinion, to set you on a diet.

Becca McCallum said...

I don't think I could eat seagull - especially after seeing all the stuff they eat (I live by the sea)! When I worked at the museum, I always delighted in telling school kids about the wonderful process of cheese-making, and why cheese isn't properly considered vegetarian. Apologies to any parents if your kids refused to eat their cheese sandwich for lunch...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Puffin is served in Iceland, but I haven't wanted to try it. Yes, food you're not used to can be off-putting - which is partly why it's so fascinating. It makes you look at your norms and preconceived ideas and say, hmm.
I think what I find so repellent about seagull is that it's a scavenging bird which eats rubbish, scraps, rotting waste, long-dead fish and all sorts. But I'm sure I'd give it a go if I was starving.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Same with jelly, Becca! Not remotely vegetarian unless you buy the Just Wholefoods or similar.
I didn't see your comment until after I posted mine, but we've said the same thing about seagulls' diets! Triple yuk.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is all so yuk! No wonder the children enjoy your talks, Marie-Louise!

But what IS pulled meat? Or is it better not to ask...?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, jelly has gelatine and cheese has rennet. But you can get both without the dead animal product. Kosher jelly and cheese without animal rennet are both available.

Morag said...

Muttonbird isn't usually served deep-fried. It is an acquired taste, though, even boiled.

Alayne Barton said...

Here on the Isle of Lewis people still eat 'guga', which is baby gannet. The men of Ness harvest, under government licence, 2000 birds annually from Sula Sgeir, a rock in the Atlantic 40 miles north-west of Lewis. No-one knows how long this has been going on but a visitor to the Hebrides in 1549 recorded that the Nessmen 'fetche hame thair boatful of dry wild fowls with wild fowl fedderi'. Guga was served in the halls of the Scots kings and even now is regarded in Lewis as a great delicacy, so much so that the catch has to be rationed out!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Wow, that's fascinating, Alayne! Similar environment; isolated and subsistence, clearly brings about similar traditions.